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Go West, Young Man

Winter 2011 (V5I4) ~ The Yukon Questionnaire

photo: Michael Edwards
Artist, musician, and former mayor John Steins on his 35 years in the Klondike
Name: John Steins

Place of Residence: Dawson City

Occupation:
Visual artist and studio technician at Yukon School of Visual Arts. Former Mayor of Dawson City (Jun. 2006- Oct. 2009).

How long have you lived in the Yukon?
“I’ve lived here for over 35 years. Frightening isn’t it? A classic case of arriving for a summer of fun, work, and adventure and completely forgetting to go back home. Talk about misspent youth!”

What brought you here?
“In June 1974, my buddy Jim and I got fed up with city life in Toronto. Adopting Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s advice for young people, we hit the rails--literally--and hopped freight trains across the Prairies as far as we could go. I never told my mother. Eventually, we hitchhiked up into the Yukon after the train tracks ran out. On our way to Dawson, we hit a snag at Stewart Crossing for a few days. No one would give us a ride. We couldn’t understand why two skinny kids with long hair down to their waist and bushy sideburns, standing on the side of the road in the Yukon, would be stranded.”

What keeps you here?
“On paper it might appear to the uninitiated that the Yukon is an inhospitable place to live year-round. Of course, we know it’s not true, but there is one big surprise, at least for me: the gravitational pull the Yukon exerts on her inhabitants. For example, getting prepared to actually leave town for a weekend or even a trip Outside is often like mounting an expedition to the moon. This mysterious gravitational force will throw up all kinds of niggling little hindrances, causing me to give pause and say to myself, ‘Do I really need to go anywhere?’ It’s also about the land, the winter, the summer, the water, and, above all, the light. In the evening, the way that gorgeous raking light in the early summer washes over everything is so calming. It puts one in a contemplative or meditative mood.”

Settle the debate for us: what makes someone a “real” Yukoner?
“If someone tells me they are born in the Yukon, I will remark on the striking coincidence that I also was born in Canada! There is a certain degree of bravado or bragging rights for having willingly endured many dark and cold winters, floods, fires, and other hardships specific to the Yukon. And, of course, there is a certain amount of pride attached
to telling people down south that you live in the Yukon. Committing to the Yukon makes you a Yukoner.”

What’s the biggest tall tale you’ve told friends or family in the South about life in the North? “At a cocktail party down south, after a few drinks, I might bring up the very unsophisticated topic of outdoor urination during extreme weather and the consequences of trying to do so. A more genteel crowd may hear about what happens to spittle before it hits the ground at fifty below.”

How do you get your friends or family in the South to come visit?
“If I wanted people to come and visit, I certainly wouldn’t have moved all the way to the Yukon, right? Kidding aside, family and friends have always visited of their own accord and end up loving it.”

Who is your favourite Yukon character of all time?
“My favourite person of the Yukon past would be the late Pa Telep. As youngsters fresh from the city, we wandered into Diamond Tooth Gerties, in Dawson, for the first time in June of 1974. There to greet us at the door and make us feel welcome was an old-timer in a fire-enginered flannel shirt and a Santa Claus white beard, topped off with a set of mischievous eyes that twinkled at us, ‘Put your backpacks down there boys, go on in, and have a good time!’ He pointed to a spot in the corner with his famous walking cane with a big knob and built-in whiskey flask that also doubled as a persuader when a patron needed to be bounced. Consequently, we got to know Pa Telep a little better over time. He was the real deal, a genuine Yukon Sourdough who put us newcomers at ease.”

I wouldn’t change ____ for all the gold in the Klondike.
“It’s already too late. The thing I wouldn’t change has already been changed. The Dawson flood of 1979 swept away many old buildings and artifacts that once littered the townscape, creating a picturesque charm that can never be replicated. The crooked boardwalks and overgrown grasses along with alleyways stuffed with old equipment, antique cars, and gold-rush artifacts are long gone. A new page has been turned. One that might be lost and lamented in the future? Who knows.”

What’s the best meal you’ve ever had in the territory? “Duck a l’orange prepared for a group dinner. My first Yukon Christmas, actually. This would have been around 1976 or 1975--I can’t remember exactly. The meal was scrumptious and drink delectable. This fellowship went on late into the mild,
snowy Yukon night.

What’s one thing about the Yukon that more of us should take advantage of? “The awesome hiking opportunities throughout our territory are not being used enough--by me at least. Not to mention the canoeing opportunities. In other words, getting out into the wilderness seems so frustratingly unattainable during the busy seasons.”

What’s your favourite piece of little-known Yukon trivia?
“Not sure if I can get everyone to agree, but ... I believe Dawson City is Canada’s most western municipality. Notice I didn’t say community; I mean incorporated municipality, which is what Dawson is. Not that anyone cares, and not to take anything away from Beaver Creek.”

What do you wish more Canadians knew about life here?
“Canadians should be aware that we are not a part of Alaska. If healthy living is a goal in your life, then the Yukon will provide the platform to help reach that goal.

Where is your favourite place in the territory? “Would it be surprising if I said Dawson City? I guess I have to go with it, even though it can be a love-hate relationship that many Dawsonites can relate to. But when push comes to shove, I have to say Dawson, always.”

What’s the best up-close-and-personal encounter you’ve had with the local wildlife?
“I try to avoid wildlife unless it’s on my dinner plate.”

You’re on the phone to a friend from the Outside. No one from the government is listening. Do you say “Yukon” or “The Yukon”?
“I say ‘The Yukon’ most of the time and the officious-sounding ‘Yukon’ for effect, especially if I want to throw someone off a little during conversation. Ultimately, my preference is with ‘the’ in front.”

When the cold and dark gets to you, where do you go to recharge?

“During the darkest part of winter I sequester myself in the toilet and tell jokes to myself in the mirror, laughing uproariously at my own punchlines. Had you fooled for a minute, didn’t I? Or did I?”

Dog mushing or snowmobiling?
“I don’t do either. I could never take care of a dog team, and the last time I went snowmobiling I got hopelessly stuck in some overflow and wrenched my back trying to lift the snow- mobile out. Ironically, a passing musher towed me out with his dog team. Wish I had a camera.”

How cold is too cold?
“Usually, we don’t fret about the cold until it hits triple digits. Then it might be difficult to get the truck started to go shopping or pick up the kids.”

What author, musician, band, or artist from the territory do you think should be more famous?
“Firstly, in our context I think the idea of fame is overrated. I believe Yukoners appreciate success, but I don’t think we are easily impressed by fame as some kind of desirable condition. That’s because the Yukon tends to ground people in a way that’s not always possible elsewhere. I think we are impressed by people who accomplish and do things, and we cheer them on. We appreciate excellence, or at least I hope we do. Recognition outside of the territory is always welcome, but ultimately there are so many ‘rock stars’ in the Yukon it’s really hard to single one out.”

You’ve just won a huge jackpot at Diamond Tooth Gerties Casino, and you have 24 hours to spend it in the Yukon. Where are you headed?
“Right back to Gerties so I can donate it to the cause!”

Finally, what does “The Spell of the Yukon” mean to you personally?
“Again, I hearken back to the notion that there is a mysterious gravitational attraction that likely is some kind of frequency emanating from the soil that holds some people. I know, it sounds like new-age airy-fairy stuff, but the proof is in the pudding, right? How many times have we witnessed people coming back to the Yukon after moving away ‘permanently,’ never to return? Who knew that gravitational force could reach halfway across the world?” Y


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